The Hundred Secret Senses – Book Review

“… Yin people, after while, just speak heart-talk. Easier, faster that way. No misconfusion like with words.”

“What does heart-talk sound like?”

“I already tell you.”

“You did?”

“Many time. Don’t just use tongue, lip, teeth for speaking. Use hundred secret sense.” – from The Hundred Secret Senses, page 211 –

When she is five years old, Olivia meets a half sister she never knew she had. Kwan is twelve years older and arrives from China to live with Olivia and her family in San Francisco.  It is 1962 and Kwan has lived a life light years away from Olivia in terms of culture and language, religion and belief – she is a puzzle to Olivia as she offers up stories of an ancient previous life lived in mid-nineteenth century China. Kwan seems to have the power to communicate with the dead through her “yin eyes,” something that fascinates, frightens and bewilders Olivia.

Narrated mostly from the point of view of Olivia, but interspersed with Kwan’s fantastic stories, The Hundred Secret Senses is a novel about two sisters and their complicated relationship. As Olivia struggles with her failing marriage, Kwan is her constant companion, whether Olivia likes it or not. Olivia is removed from her Chinese heritage and embarrassed by Kwan’s stilted English and superstitious beliefs. But despite her best efforts to dismiss Kwan’s stories, Olivia finds herself drawn into a world where dead people speak, the past becomes entwined with the present, and fate seems unavoidable.

Fate has no logic, you can’t argue with it any more than you can argue with a tornado, an earthquake, a terrorist. Fate is another name for Kwan. – from The Hundred Secret Senses, page 168 –

Amy Tan’s characters jump to life on the page. Original, funny, and deeply complex, the characters drive this story about human connection, love, secrets, and the mystery of life itself. I loved Kwan, a character who is quirky, lovable, and immensely wise.

Kwan, in contrast, is a tiny dynamo, barely five feet tall, a miniature bull in a china shop. Everything about her is loud and clashing. She’ll wear a purple checked jacket over turquoise pants. She whispers loudly in a husky voice, sounding as if she had chronic laryngitis, when in fact she’s never sick. She dispense health warnings, herbal recommendations, and opinions on how to fix just about anything, from broken cups to broken marriages. She bounces from topic to topic, interspersing tips on where to find bargains. Tommy once said that Kwan believes in free speech, free association, free car-wash with fill-‘er-up. The only change in Kwan’s English over the last thirty years is in the speed with which she talks. Meanwhile, she thinks her English is great. She often corrects her husband. “Not stealed,” she’ll tell George. “Stolened.” – from The Hundred Secret Senses, page 21 –

Tan takes her readers back to China, into an old world of tiny towns and breathtaking vistas, and immerses us in a world of Chinese ghosts and deeply entrenched superstition. She slowly reveals the relationship between Olivia and Kwan, moving toward a conclusion which is surprising, heartbreaking, and filled with hope.

I loved this book with its mix of humor and sentiment. Tan alternates between reality and spiritual knowledge, turning what we think we know on its head. She reveals a deeper understanding about what it means to be human and connected in a world which seems vast and mysterious. Readers who appreciate lyrical writing and complex characterization will want to add this Tan novel to their must read pile. The Hundred Secret Senses earned Tan a spot on the 1996 short list for The Orange Prize for Fiction.

Highly Recommended.

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. I thought I’d read all of Tan’s work, but this one doesn’t sound familiar. I’ll have to look for it.

    • Tui on January 15, 2011 at 07:53

    I loved this one too, Wendy. Tan is an “always read” writer for me.

  2. I enjoyed this book a lot, read it during my soul-seeking days (overseas Chinese in Europe). I wonder why she hasn’t written much lately?

    • zibilee on January 16, 2011 at 16:36

    I have this one coming up for review soon. I actually did read it about 10 years ago, but have totally forgotten all it’s various twists and turns. I am looking forward to revisiting it. I love Amy Tan.

    • Wendy on January 16, 2011 at 16:55

    Kathy: I believe it was published back in 1996…

    Tui: Glad to know you also enjoyed this one – I need to look up more of her work.

    Chinoiseries: I’m new to Tan, so I’m not sure if she is expected to publish a new books soon. I did find this site which lists all her published works:

    Heather: Glad to know this is a favorite author of yours…I really liked my first dip into her work!

  3. I love Amy Tan – absolutely love her.

    • Anna on January 20, 2011 at 07:27

    I remember loving this book when I read it 10 years or so ago. You’ve made me want to dust off my copy and re-read it.

  4. I remember reading this and I think I enjoyed it, but not as much as The Kitchen God’s Wife or The Joy Luck Club. If you haven’t read those, you’re in for a treat!

    • Serena on January 20, 2011 at 15:55

    This was one of my favorite books of Amy Tan’s. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it.

    • Wendy on January 21, 2011 at 06:46

    Coffee and A Book Chick: You seem to be in the majority! I am surprised how long it took me to discover her!

    Anna: I don’t re-read a lot of books, but I love when I have a favorite book and then “rediscover” it!

    Les: I have heard good things about both of those books – going on my wish list!

    Serena: I had not really heard much about this book until I read it – glad to know we share the same opinion about it!

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